Monday, August 21, 2017

Rank Insignia of the Civil War and the Army of the West—Officers by Gordon Rottman

Rank Insignia of the Civil War and the Army of the West—Officers

This is a continuation of an article published month before last, which covered enlisted men's rank insignia. This article addresses commissioned officers rank insignia used in the Old West and during the Civil War--both Union and Confederate. The article also briefly addresses infantry and cavalry regimental organization. This provides a glimpse at what duty positions were held by officers and NCOs. It also provides an idea of how these units were organized so that you can talk about regiments, squadrons, battalions, troops, and companies if necessary for your story. If you have any questions, give me a shout.

There were three broad categories of commissioned officers. “Company grade officers” included 2nd and 1st lieutenants and captains. “Field grade officers”—because they constituted what was known as the regimental “field and staff”—included majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels. “General officers” included all the various general grades, sometimes called “flag officers” as they were authorized an identify flag displaying their authorized number of stars—white stars on a red banner regardless of branch. There was an unwritten unofficial Army rule, as so many were, that declared: Lieutenants may not marry, captains may marry, majors should marry, and colonels must marry.
Post-1872 US Army officer rank shoulder straps. All rank insignia were silver except for majors, which were gold.

2nd and 1st lieutenants together were addressed at Lieutenants, captains as Captain, majors as Major, lieutenant colonels and colonels both as Colonel, and all general grades as General.
Shoulder straps were 4 inches long and 1-3/8 inches wide bordered by 1/4-inch wide gold braid. The wool background was of the branch color, but general officers used black backing regardless of their previous branch. Two wire-embroidered rank insignia adorned each shoulder strap except for the colonel’s single eagle and the one to four stars representing the general’s specific rank. Medical officers wore black backing too, but with a silver Old English M.S. for Medical Service. After the Civil War staff officers too wore a black backing although officers temporarily seconded to general staffs retrained their branch color.
During the Civil War 1st lieutenants wore a gold bar, one near each end of the strap. 2nd lieutenants wore no insignia on their straps. Captains wore two gold bars, one pair near both the strap’s ends. The gold bars became silver in 1872. Majors wore a gold oak leaf and lieutenant colonels a silver one near the strap’s ends. Colonels wore only a single spread-winged silver eagle. Brigadier generals displayed one silver star, major generals two, lieutenant generals three, and generals four. (It would not be until 1917 that 2nd lieutenants’ received a gold bar as the shoulder straps were no longer worn on field uniforms, only on blue dress uniforms.)
From lowest to highest, general ranks were:
Brigadier general—one star. Commanded brigades.
Major general—two stars. Commanded divisions.
Lieutenant general—three stars. Commanded corps.
General—four stars. Commanded armies.
Some may ask why does a lieutenant general outrank a major general? In this instance lieutenant means a “deputy” to a “full general” (four-star) in the same manner that a lieutenant governor is the deputy of the governor. These same officer rank titles and similar insignia are still in use today by the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force.

shoulder boards
Union and post-Civil War Officer shoulder straps or boards. Left column top to bottom: cavalry 2nd lieutenant, artillery 1st lieutenant, Medical Service captain, and staff major.
Right column top to bottom: staff lieutenant colonel, infantry colonel, brigadier general, and major general.
Rightmost shoulder strap: lieutenant general. A full general (not pictured) would have four stars.

The Confederate Army used the same officer rank titles as the Union, but drastically changed the insignia. Gold-colored insignia were worn on the coat collars rather than on shoulder straps. 2nd lieutenants, 1st lieutenants, and captains displayed one, two, and three stripes, respectively. Majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels wore one, two, and three five-pointed stars, respectively. General officers, regardless of their specific grade, all wore three stars, the center one being slightly larger, and surrounded by an oval wreath. Often simple tin cutouts of bars and stars were used. These insignia were outlined in branch colored edging according to regulations, but in practice were often devoid of colored edging. The coat collar and cuffs were to be faced in the branch color as was the front opening’s piping. Such branch color dressings were seldom available though.

Confederate States Army officer rank insignia. Gold insignia with branch color edging (not shown). Additionally, the collars themselves were faced in the branch color, but this was not always worn, especially late in the war.

Basically the infantry company’s 1st and 2nd lieutenants—these were duty positions as well as rank titles—each commanded one of the company’s two platoons. Captains commanded companies/troops/batteries. Colonels commanded regiments (the title derives from the Italian colonna and means “of a column,” and, by implication, “commander of a column.” The regiment’s second-in-command was the lieutenant colonel and the major was the third-in-command adding the colonel in the command of his units. A regiment might be subdivided into two temporary battalions with the lieutenant colonel and the major each commanding one.
It must be pointed out that in both war and peacetime that the rank of an officer commanding a given unit might be one or even two ranks below the authorized rank, for example, many regimental commanders were lieutenant colonels.

Image result for civil war infantry regiment organization
The rank and duty positions within a full-strength Civil War infantry regiment of 10 line companies. In reality the actual effective field strength was typically 200-600 officers and men. The Adjutant and Quartermaster were usually lieutenants.

Formation and Strength of a Cavalry Regiment, 1876
                        Field and Staff.                                                Company Formation.
1 Colonel.                                                              1 Captain.
1 Lieutenant Colonel.                                           1 First Lieutenant.
3 Majors.                                                               1 Second Lieutenant.
1 Adjutant (extra Lieutenant).                              1 First Sergeant.
1 Regimental Quartermaster (extra Lieutenant).  6 Sergeants.
1 Sergeant-Major.                                                 4 Corporals.
1 Quartermaster’s Sergeant.                                  2 Trumpeters.
1 Chief Musician.                                                  2 Farriers and Blacksmiths.
1 Saddler Sergeant.                                               1 Saddler.
1 Chief Trumpeter.                                                1 Wagoner.
                                                                              54 Privates.
__                                                                          __
12                                                                          76
                        Twelve companies, 76 each ---------------------------------- 912
                        Field and Staff --------------------------------------------------  12
                                    Total ---------------------------------------------------- 924
The rank and duty positions of an 1876 cavalry regiment of 12 line companies—also called troops. The three majors allowed the regiment to be organized with up to three battalions—also called squadrons—or to command detachments at distant posts. A battalion could contain three to six companies. They were not necessarily of equal strength, but organized for specific missions. Effective strength on the frontier could easily be 200 fewer than authorized.

This final bit of information may be of use to writers when writing narrative and dialog. It was required to salute an officer before and after addressing or when addressed by an officer. If mounted the soldier was required to dismount before addressing a dismounted officer. When addressing an officer soldiers were told to make their statement in as few words as possible. When dismissed the soldier saluted, told one step backwards, turned and departed.
It was required to speak to officers in the third person, e.g., “Does the Captain wish his horse saddled this morning” or “Trooper Brown would like to speak to the Lieutenant about his pay allotment.” Once a conversation commenced it was not necessary for the speaker to use third person, but “I,” “me,” or “my” when referring to himself. The officer, however, was always to be addressed third person and never as “you.” Enlisted men were never to address officers by their rank in the first person, “Lieutenant, may I…”. Instead, one would say, “Sir, may I…”.


  1. I was under the impression from reading in various pre WWI sources that lieutenants were addressed as "Mister."

  2. That is true, but that varied over time and place and I think too the preferences of more senior officers. It could be both ways I think. Thanks for the comment. I should have mentioned that.

  3. Oh wow. Thanks for the conversational tidbits, too.

  4. What about trouser stripes? I've never been exactly clear on whether they were worn only by officers, or if certain NCOs and enlisted men had them too.

  5. Okay, sky blue trousers were worn by all personnel except generals and staff officers wore dark blue as the coat. Private-no stripes, corporal-1/2-inch, sergeants-1-inch, officers-1-1/2-inches. Stripes were in the branch colors described in Part 1. I hope this helps.